John Bennison Words and Ways | 2011 | August

What Kind of “Christian?” – Part I

[This is the first of a two-part commentary on this subject. To print and/or read a pdf version both commentaries, click here.]

Preface

Shortly before his deadly rampage in Norway in July, 2011, Anders Behring Breivik posted a 1,516-page farewell message on his Facebook page. Among other things, the document contained a rambling manifesto by a Christian jihadist, who envisioned the emergence of a secret society akin to the Knights Templar. The Knights Templar was an elite corps of Christian warriors during the bloody crusades of the Middle Ages, who once wielded formative political and economic influence in Europe.

In a world where radical religious extremism can manifest itself in acts of terror in one of the most peaceful places on earth, such grossly distorted views of some form of Christian fundamentalism now appears to be a part of the mix, knowing no bounds.

No wonder then that within days, a self-professed Christian fundamentalist, named Chuck Missler, would disavow on his online Bible Prophecy blog any resemblance to the actions of a deranged mass murderer. “The Norway shooter is no fundamentalist Christian,” argued Missler. Why? Because, Missler wrote, in that same manifesto the madman “supports Darwinism and human logic, demonstrating a rationalist worldview rather than a Christian one.” Uh-oh.

Like these two characters, I would also identify myself as some kind of “Christian.” But at the same time, I couldn’t resemble either of them less. So what kinds of beliefs and behaviors do I accept and refute to describe my own “Christian” identity?

 

I. What does it matter?

Wrestling with this question is more than just a mental exercise, distinguishing ourselves from those others we might perceive as religious wing nuts. We’re tampering with the intangible realities that can direct the “convicted” and “converted” hearts and minds of human beings to say and do almost anything.

We’re tampering with the intangible realities that can direct the “convicted” and “converted” hearts and minds of human beings to say and do almost anything.

So, why is it important to ask what “kind” of a Christian we are? Simply put, how we identify ourselves shapes who we are, and shapes our sense of reality, what is real, what is of value and ultimate importance.

If I ask who you really are, you might begin by talking about the roles you’ve assumed in life: spouse, parent, your occupation, your interests, your family background, etc.  Then it might extend to your affiliations: where you live, who you know, who knows you, and how you fit into the mix.

Then – if you’re secure enough with your own convictions and think it’s safe and appropriate for you to do so — you might venture into sharing your political persuasion and opinion about the world we live in, and maybe even a few of your religious beliefs.   Proper identification is important.  It provides a framework for how we understand how we engage the world we live in.

Now, while there are many components to what makes me who I am, I’m keenly aware there are two pervasive ones that seem to speak to the question why it matters to ask what kind of Christian I am.  The relationship between these two aspects of my identity is both informative and telling.  It’s about my religious identity as a Christian of some kind, and what is nowadays touted by the term American “exceptionalism.”

 

II. Christianity today and American “Exceptionalism”

I’m a Christian, and I’m an American.  I fly the American flag outside my front door on national holidays, pay my taxes, and follow our political process. And, I study the Bible because it contains Christianity’s sacred texts; which help me shape the way I try to live my life.

But I have lived most of my adult life with a discernible tension between these two aspects of who I am as an American Christian.  Each informs the other.  As a Christian, how I understand and practice the way I live out my religious faith challenges my citizenship in the larger world, and vice versa.  I cannot isolate my religious life from the rest of my life.  If I could, it would be of no earthly use to me.

I live in a time when some of the predominant American cultural attitudes and collective social and political policies seem to stand more than ever in sharp contrast to a biblical view of life; especially the central message of the gospels, derived from the wisdom teachings of Jesus, and a biblical vision of how we might one day achieve a just and peaceful world.

While this is an assertion from my own perspective that should hardly require debate or further inquiry as far as I’m concerned, I am equally aware there are a number of other Americans who also consider themselves to be Christians, who would not see things the way I do. So I offer just a few examples, without necessarily feeling the need to argue or defend my viewpoint further.

I live in a time when some of the predominant American cultural attitudes and collective social and political policies seem to stand more than ever in sharp contrast to a biblical view of life.

For one thing, we remain indisputably the one dominant imperial power in the world today; with a military force that dwarfs the collective military might of all other nations of the world combined.  We wage wars we cannot win, in order to suppress the violence of extremists we cannot win over; with a ready willingness to inflict collateral damage on the civilian populations of other countries in our own self-interest.

Sometimes we do so in the name of liberation; but our attempts to secure for other nations such an exodus from tyranny bears little resemblance to the “crooked ways made straight” in the wilderness the ancient prophets envisioned. Our wars drag on so long now they have become a habituated routine; often reported only in terms of the public’s weariness and fatigue over hearing about them and paying for them.

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